When Buddhists Go Bad: Photographs by Adam Dean

Adam Dean—Panos for TIME
Adam Dean—Panos for TIME
The following photographs were taken in May and June 2013.

Wirathu, the spiritual leader of the 969 Buddhist Nationalist movement, and his entourage leave after giving a sermon at a monastery in Mandalay, Burma.

The spectacle of faith makes for luminous photography. Buddhism, in particular, lends itself to the lens: those shaven heads and richly hued monastic robes; the swirls of incense; the pure expressions of devotees to a religion whose first precept is “do not kill.” But as photographer Adam Dean and I discovered when traveling through Burma and Thailand from May to June, Buddhism’s pacifist image is being challenged by a radical strain that marries spirituality with ethnic chauvinism. In Buddhist-majority Burma, where communal clashes have proliferated over the past year, scores of Muslims have been killed by Buddhist mobs, while in Thailand and Sri Lanka the fabric binding temple and state is being stitched ever tighter.

(Cover Story: The Face of Buddhist Terror)

The godfather of radical Buddhism is a monk named Wirathu, a slight presence with an outsized message of hate. Adam followed Wirathu, who has taken the title of “Burmese bin Laden,” around Mandalay in central Burma, as he preached his loathing of the country’s Muslim minority to schoolchildren and housewives alike. In March, tensions detonated in the town of Meikhtila, where communal violence ended dozens of lives, mostly Muslim. Entire Muslim quarters were razed by Buddhists hordes. Even today, anxiety churns. One late afternoon as Adam walked near Wirathu’s monastic compound, a monk hurled a brick at him. Burgundy robes cannot camouflage inborn hostility.

Adam Dean for TIME

Adam Dean for TIME

The cover of this week's TIME International.

In Southern Thailand, which was once united as a Muslim Malay sultanate, monks count on soldiers to shield them from harm. A separatist insurgency has claimed around 5,000 lives since 2004, and while more Muslims have died, it is Buddhists who feel particularly vulnerable as targets of shadowy militants. The Thai military now stations its troops in Buddhist temple compounds, further cleaving a pair of religions whose followers once shared each other’s feast days. One morning in mid-June, a bomb exploded in Kradoh, Pattani province, as Thai rangers patrolled a street where a peace and reconciliation meeting was taking place. Chanchote Phetpong, 28, who was clutching a bag of rose apples as he strolled, endured the brunt of the explosion; his orphaned fruit lay scattered in a pool of his blood.

(MORE: Straying From the Middle Way: Extremist Buddhist Monks Target Religious Minorities)

At the nearby Yarang hospital, Adam photographed as teachers, mostly Buddhist, came to pay their respects to the dead ranger, who normally protected them as they walked to school each day. A Muslim nurse with a head covering quietly plucked shrapnel out of Chanchote’s face, cleaning him up for his funeral, while another tended to one of his wounded comrades. A clutch of Buddhist rangers looked on. The nurses’ veils felt like a reproach, a symbol of the divide between faiths in this nervous land. “They are scared of all of us,” whispered one Muslim hospital worker. “We used to have trust but that’s gone.”


Adam Dean is a photographer based in Beijing. He is represented by Panos Pictures.

Hannah Beech is TIME’s China bureau chief and East Asia correspondent.


Related Topics: ,

Latest Posts

2014.  Gaza.  Palestine.  Schoolchildren head to class at the Sobhi Abu Karsh School in the Shujai'iya neighborhood. Operation Protective Edge lasted from 8 July 2014 – 26 August 2014, killing 2,189 Palestinians of which 1,486 are believed to be civilians. 66 Israeli soldiers and 6 civilians were killed.  It's estimated that 4,564 rockets were fired at Israel by Palestinian militants.

Inside Gaza with Photographer Peter van Agtmael

What photographer Peter van Agtmael encountered in Gaza changed the way he worked.

Read More
WASTELAND PERMITTED USE: This image may be downloaded or is otherwise provided at no charge for one-time use for coverage or promotion of National Geographic magazine dated December 2014 and exclusively in conjunction thereof.  No copying, distribution or archiving permitted.  Sublicensing, sale or resale is prohibited.     REQUIRED CREDIT AND CAPTION: All image uses must bear the copyright notice and be properly credited to the relevant photographer, as shown in this metadata, and must be accompanied by a caption, which makes reference to NGM.  Any uses in which the image appears without proper copyright notice, photographer credit and a caption referencing NGM are subject to paid licensing.        Mandatory usage requirements: (Please note: you may select 5 branded images for online use and 3 images for print/unbranded)1. Include mandatory photo credit with each image2. Show the December cover of National Geographic somewhere in the post (credit: National Geographic) unless using only one image3. Provide a prominent link to: http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2014/12/superfund/voosen-textat the top of your piece, ahead of the photos 4. Mention that the images are from "the December issue of National Geographic magazine” GOWANUS CANALNew York, New YorkPollutants: polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), mercury, lead, copperYear listed: 2010Carved from a tidal estuary 160 years ago, the Gowanus Canal is Brooklyn’s industrial artery—and a deeply polluted waterway. Even so, it’s frequented by herons, seagulls, crabs, and canoeists. Defying local fears of economic stigma, the EPA listed the canal as a Superfund site in 2010. It hopes to start dredging contaminated mud in 2016.

Photojournalism Daily: Nov. 24, 2014

Mideast Israel Palestinians

The Best Pictures of the Week: Nov. 14 – Nov. 21

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 19,254 other followers